The Knowledge

It’s what built an Empire

Often referred to as the last outpost of the British Empire, the Public Carriage Office (now renamed The Taxi and Private Hire Office but for the purposes of brevity it will be forever called the PCO) holds on to a number of curious and antiquated ideas, not the least of which is the notion that fare-paying passengers are keen to hear the driver’s political advice (in much the same way, no doubt, that the drivers are offended by large tips). Nevertheless, the PCO has maintained a standard of excellence that nowadays is so unusual as to be almost unique. If you conducted a global poll to see in which aspects of life Britain leads the world, the answer would not be public transport, town planning, manufacturing, national cuisine, plumbing, dentistry or education. But, by general consent, London does have the best taxi-drivers.

I say this of course, without prejudice, but London’s licensed cabbies are safer, more polite, better trained, better prepared and more knowledgeable than any other taxi drivers on the planet. Whereas elsewhere in the world, driving a cab is something you do while you study to get a proper job as a teacher or actor or novelist, in London, it is the other way round. In fact, there is really only one problem with the capital’s black-cab drivers, we are the best and we know it, and it all comes down to one simple concept – The Knowledge.

Contradictions lie at the heart of The Knowledge. It often takes as long as obtaining a doctorate to complete but is arguably tougher than most courses which reward students with letters after their names. It leads to a career in a distinctly working class profession where the most dedicated drivers can earn considerably more than most young graduates. It prepares pupils for a working life which will entail a large amount of tedium caused by sitting in traffic, yet, for the driver who picks up an interesting fare or for the fare that serendipitously picks the right driver; a London cab journey can provide a life-changing or just amusing experience. Just ask Mark Solomon who after a short conversation with a passenger asked for a quote. This simple idea has turned itself into Black Cab Quotes a website devoted to passengers’ quotes, so popular has it been he has even had a book published of the best pithy answers.

Academics and those who only find value in what Bart Simpson would call ‘book smarts’ may sneer at the suggestion that learning to be a black cab driver could be as demanding as a degree, but a thorough examination of what The Knowledge entails can be revealing.

Just call me Sir

A kind of Masonic austerity was enforced by the police who once ran the PCO. The Met veterans in an effort to maintain a rigid code of discipline, much of which still remains. Candidates must wear suits and ties to appearances. ‘The difficulty of the questions asked is directly linked to the size of the earring or length of pony tail’ is a common refrain of examiners who are addressed as ‘Sir’, and failure to arrive on time results in reducing your chances of qualifying.

A Modern Times documentary focused on the climate of fear created by the examiners. And the most feared of all examiners was Mr Ormes. A lugubrious character with a bone-dry delivery, Ormes was seen asking one nervous candidate with a criminal record how to get to the Penal Reform Society. He looked and sounded like a copper who had seen it all and didn’t believe your story. He once asked me The Adelphi Building to The Royal Society of Arts. When I queried that they were opposite each other on John Adam Street he replied: “It’s raining, I’m pregnant and I’ve got a wooden leg”. When a Knowledge boy left his office he wouldn’t even remember his own name – a truly terrifying experience. ‘You can smell if people have what is needed,’ Mr Ormes would say.

How long is a piece of string?

Without doubt, London is the most unplanned big city in the world. There are no grids, blocks or grand avenues, just a complex of seemingly random roads and streets. If it wasn’t for the Blitz whole sections of the City would be a labyrinth of alleys. As it is even for the casual driver, the desire to understand the chaos can become dangerously absorbing. It’s not uncommon for people to spend whole dinner parties in one part of London relating how they got there from another part. So the appeal of The Knowledge goes beyond the lure of self-employment and a good wage to that of a heroic endeavour – to boldly go where no man would think of going.

You can see why The Knowledge lends itself to metaphor. After a while, the search is not so much geographical as existential. You start out looking for the Samaritan Free Hospital and end up finding yourself. The Knowledge is a life-changing task that takes upwards of five years to complete.

The Knowledge (and how to get it)

The Knowledge comprises 320 routes which stretch across London. These routes, know in the trade as ‘runs’ can be found in the ‘Guide to Learning The Knowledge of London’ (more commonly known as the ‘Blue Book’, even though for decades the cover has been pink), which is issued to anyone who wants to become a cab driver.

The Blue Book Which is of course pink

The Blue Book
Which is of course pink

The runs can start or finish anywhere in a six-mile radius of Charing Cross and must be completed using the straightest route from one end to the other. Along these runs are points of interest (known as ‘points’) which include, but are not exclusive to: Theatres, cinemas, embassies, professional organisations, sporting venues, hotels, hospitals, places of worship, government buildings and pretty much every other place a resident of or tourist in London has ever wanted to go. The names and locations of these spots must be learnt, as must every street name on every run.

First page of routes Manor House to Gibson Square

First page of routes
Manor House to Gibson Square

The most famous is Run No. 1 –Manor House to Gibson Square, and as they say not because anyone would want to go from Manor House to Gibson Square but you have to learn it all the same.

Leave on left: Green Lanes

Right: Highbury New Park

Left: Highbury Grove

Right: St. Paul’s Road

Comply: Highbury Corner

Leave by: Upper Street

Right: Barnsbury Street

Left: Milner Square

Forward: Milner Place

Forward: Gibson Square

At this juncture, some readers may think, ‘Wow. That many routes and points would take a long time to learn, I’m happier to pay someone to do this for me.’ In which case, you’ve already proved the worth of black cab drivers. Others, more confident in their observation and sense of direction may ponder the size of the task and think, ‘It’s a lot, but I could handle it.’

There is, of course, more – much more

When handed the list of runs, wannabe cab drivers tend to buy a scooter and fix a clipboard attachment on to the handlebars. This helps so they can read and memorise individual runs from the Blue Book as they ride around London learning runs, street names and points.

Regardless of their existing knowledge of London, most Knowledge boys (or girls) spend at least a year, sometimes longer, reinforcing what they think they know of London and learning the runs as well as they can before taking a mandatory written map test.

During the map test students are given start and finish points of five runs which they must write out in full exact routes of five runs in full. Additionally, a series of five blank sections of Ordnance Survey maps are also given to examinees to plot other road names and points. It is not unusual for wannabe cab drivers to fail the map test, on some occasions more than once.

What really makes the lot of the trainee London cab driver tough is the method of examination after the map test and the accompanying tough and exquisitely torturous journey from novice to expert. Rather than being asked to merely drive the runs for their examiners while naming streets, Knowledge boys have to ‘call’ (i.e. read out) their routes correctly at a series of ‘appearances’.

Keeping up appearances

At each appearance a Knowledge student must meet an examiner at a pre-arranged time at the PCO. Once seated in the examiner’s office, the examiner will name a point to start from (e.g., the Iranian Embassy) and a point of interest to finish at (e.g., the Royal Astronomical Society). After correctly naming the road the starting point is on and the location of the finishing point, the student must call the whole route including all correct directions and street names, taking one-way streets into consideration and always remembering to travel in as straight a line as possible. It is not enough to name a route comprising the main roads (that’s what buses are for).

At each appearance a student must call four runs correctly and score a ‘C’ to pass to the next appearance of the stage. The inner-workings of Knowledge examiners are notoriously secretive and they will only award a ‘C’ if they are happy with all the routes taken. It is not enough to call a route, it must be the route or at least extremely close to the route the examiners had in mind. The route may not be the same as initially learned in the Blue Book. If that sounds rather arbitrary and unfair, that is because it is.

In real life, the average cab driver will deal with thousands of fares. As anyone who has ever worked with or for the public will attest, the world is full of cretins, ignorant fools, violent imbeciles and strange, sexual deviants. Some of whom are actually quite unpleasant. Therefore examiners are keen to test how students respond to pressure by deliberately causing a distraction during exams by tapping on a desk, singing and generally cocking around. The idea is that if you snap under exam conditions, you’re certainly not ready to face the public and represent the PCO and by extension, London, every day.

This is not to say examiners don’t have a sense of humour. When Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy in September 2008 there were reports of examiners asking students ‘Take me from Lehman Brothers to the nearest job centre.’ In the BBC TV documentary Modern Times: Streetwise one potential cabbie that had been in prison before attempting The Knowledge is asked to start a run at HMP Pentonville. If a Knowledge boy has a weak spot, a PCO examiner will exploit it.

How often do I have to appear?

At the first stage appearances are 56 days apart. To move on to the next stage a Knowledge student must get four Cs. Those keen on maths will immediately work out this means the quickest any student can pass the first stage is more than seven months (i.e. four appearances x 56 days apart).

However, the likelihood of getting four straight Cs in a row is extremely low. Getting a D at an appearance during the 56 days stage is allowed up to three times before a student has to return to the map test and start again.

Therefore the longest that can be spent on the first stage of appearances before returning to the map test is just over a year (seven x 56 days , based on a student scoring three Cs and three Ds before getting the final D which sends him back to the start).

It is not uncommon for Knowledge boys to have to return to the map test. At this point some will inevitably drop out.

After more than a year on a scooter learning runs before even starting appearances and another year learning while attending appearances, to be told to return to the map test means a minimum of another seven months before you can even move on to the next stage.

Eventually, those that haven’t given up (and plenty do – about 70 per cent) will pass the 56 day stage. This is the hardest and longest stage, because, well, trying to learn the names, locations and interconnections of thousands of streets takes a long time. The more you learn, the easier it gets.

Rather obviously, the more time Knowledge Boy puts in to studying the A-Z and driving around looking at streets and points, the quicker he can learn and the quicker he can pass each stage.

This is why, like everything else in life, The Knowledge favours the rich or at least financially secure. If you can afford to give up work and have spare time, you can spend more time on the roads and pass The Knowledge quicker.

Once four Cs have been passed at the 56-day stage, appearances are 28 days apart. Same rules as before, except now a rudimentary driving test also has to be taken. This is to test overall ability and temperament of a student. Observant readers will work out this stage can be passed in a little under four months at best (i.e. four Cs – four x 28 days) and a little under seven at worst (i.e. four x C, three x D – seven x 28 days).

Those who get four Ds again have to return to the map test, but by this point, it’s pretty unlikely a Knowledge student will get four Ds unless he drinks a bottle of absinth every night and rots his mind and memory away. Admittedly, many may consider this a sane and reasonable reaction to living in London but it won’t help you pass The Knowledge.

This stage also sees the introduction of examiners posing hypothetical routes, e.g., ‘Take me from Trellick Tower to Camberwell Green but avoid X Bridge, closed because of road works or Y Street, which closed due to a bomb scare/protest/impromptu rave.’ This makes a run tougher to call, but is entirely fair. London is perpetually beset by road closures and road works, so this sort of query is akin to a cab driver’s real experience.

The penultimate appearance stage involves appearances 21 days apart, with the same rules as before. Four Cs here will take just under three months, with the lengthiest possible time just under four months.

Upon gaining the final C, drivers get their Requirement or ‘Req,’ perhaps appropriately pronounced ‘wreck,’ given the amount of time and effort it has taken to achieve and the effect such studies would have on most ordinary people.

There is also the little matter of passing a driving test, showing that The Knowledge boy has the ability to perform a very tight 3-point turn (not as London motorists claim a u-turn without warning), this 3-point turn must be performed while keeping the wheels moving, a hill start, and knowledge (yes it’s that word again) of helping the disabled to get in and out of the vehicle.

A medical examination from The Knowledge boy’s doctor is required as well as a Criminal Record check, both paid for by the applicant.

Finally the suburb test, this involves calling runs as before, but on routes from central London far into the suburbs. These are generally concerned with main roads and don’t cause many problems to the now-confident and able Knowledge boy.

When the suburb test is passed, a Green Badge is handed over by the examiner unceremoniously to The Knowledge boy, who has earned the right to drive a Black Cab in the world’s greatest city.

The reason some people take more time to finish The Knowledge than doctors take to qualify is that it’s not a one-way street. You can go backwards as well as forwards. Each candidate is assessed in a series of ‘appearances’ before a PCO examiner and depending on how well the appearance goes the length of time until the next appearance is shortened, extended or unchanged. You start out with 56-day, or sometimes 80-day, gaps between appearances and aim to get down to 21-day gaps to pass out. The effect might be compared to walking blindfold up a down escalator.

What happens next?

The lot of a cab driver is an odd mix of restriction and freedom, how many days, nights, weeks and months each year are worked are at the cabbie’s discretion. But with vehicles costing upwards of £40,000 (at 2012 prices) or renting a cab close to £200 per week and added to that £30 of diesel fuel, the hours can be very long indeed.

In an article written in the trade press Alf Townsend posed the question ‘How far do cabbies commute to work?’ Working out of Heathrow was ‘Welsh’ Bob, ‘Scotch’ John and ‘Manchester’ Ted. Some of these cabbies would work three days, sleeping in their cab overnight before going home. One of the more colourful characters was ‘Mr Pastry’ who would cook himself a full English breakfast on his primus in the back of his cab, until that is, a Carriage Officer caught him.

With just a little research Alf Townsend found London cabbies living in Israel, France, Spain, Portugal, Malta, Florida, Thailand and Australia.

The furthest Alf found was a commuter cabbie who spends his summers working as a London cabbie to return to New Zealand to drive a cab in Auckland during our winter.

If you are still interested in The Knowledge I would rate it as the best part time job on the planet, with a degree of freedom not enjoyed by most professions. As a full time job? Then there is always a degree of uncertainty in your earnings every day you leave home.

How it used to be on bicycles

Here is a short filmed in 1948 by British Pathe of men sitting at desks and studying maps at a school set up by the British Legion for ex-servicemen who want to become taxi drivers. Their instructor, ex-Inspector Turner (late Scotland Yard) walks around talking to the men.

A little knowledge about The Knowledge

1633 First recorded plying of coaches for hire in the street.

1694 Parliamentary Act passed to regulate Hackney carriage trade.

1834 Hansom cabs introduced.

1850 Public Carriage Office opened.

1851 Knowledge is introduced.

1903 The first petrol-driven cab took to the road.

1907 Taximeter introduced.

1952 First diesel cab.

An interesting article entitled The Knowledge, London’s Legendary Taxi-Driver Test, Puts Up a Fight in the Age of GPS by Jody Rosen appeared in the New York Times. Balanced and well written it is worth a read.